30 October 2008

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '08: SITA SINGS THE BLUES (PALEY, USA)

Sita Sings the Blues, the first feature-length movie animated and directed by Nina Paley, sometime cartoonist, graphic artist and animator, is not without its flaws, but what it lacks in absolute perfection it makes up for - and then some - in ambition and passion. First conceived in the wake of her divorce, the film is a retelling of part of the Indiana epic Ramayana, in which Lord Rama rescues his beloved and tremendously faithful wife Sita from a demon king, only to doubt her fidelity once he's brought her back. Paley's not-dissimilar experience (her husband dragged her from San Francisco to India, where he was on a year-long business trip, only to initiate divorce proceedings while she was briefly in New York on comic-related business) led her to reconsider the Ramayana from the perspective of an honest woman cast out for no apparent reason, and that in turn led to the creation of a movie that not only adapts the epic, but also splices in animated vignettes from Paley's real-life crisis.

The film consists of four narrative threads, each animated in a different style. The story of Paley (voicing herself) and her husband Dave (Sanjiv Jhaveri, who provides a great many other foives as well) is animated in something close to the Squigglevision technique that was so popular around the turn of the decade, with character designs recalling Paley's comic work. The Ramayana material is framed by three modern-day Indian narrators, animated as traditional shadow puppets, attempting to recall the details of the epic from memory. The narrative of the epic is "animated" only in the crudest sense: characters in static poses based on traditional Indian painting techniques are scooted across flat backgrounds, the only movement in their bodies coming at the jaw, when they're speaking. And the last thread, by far the most memorable and interesting, comes when the narrative reaches a pause, and Sita, done in bright, round Flash-style animation (Wikipedia calls it "vector graphic animation"), launches into a musical number explaining how she feels about the situation - but not just any musical number. She sings in the voice of long-forgotten jazz singer Annette Hanshaw, and if Sita Sings the Blues serves no other function, dragging some of Hanshaw's recordings out of the dust of time would be more than enough justification for its existence.

Those four threads tend to come after each other in a very set pattern, which has a terribly unfortunate side-effect of leaving the film feeling uncannily like a series of short films that have been combined into a feature for marketing purposes, like those old Looney Tunes anthology pictures. So it's not very surprising to learn that, as Paley completed each segment, she would debut it as, essentially, a stand-alone short. And by all means, those shorts are all pretty great, but they simply don't cohere into a whole. Besides each module, or short, or whatever we want to call them, is essentially identical to every other, and the film becomes repetitive quickly, so that by the end it's no longer exciting to hear what long-lost jazz classic Sita will be singing to next, and more "Oh, hell, another Annette Hanshaw song?" You could set your watch to it.

As a narrative, the breezy tone and unabashedly modern sensibility keep the film entertaining throughout, although its Cliffs Notes summation of one of the longest works of fiction of the ancient world is necessarily rushed. But I kept finding myself wondering when Paley intended to get to the point, and I'm not certain that she ever did. Frankly, I'm not even certain whether to consider Sita Sings the Blues a feminist or post-feminist statement, if indeed it's meant to be any kind of statement at all; on the one hand, Sita is clearly being reclaimed from a patriarchal framework, but on the other, there's no sane way to defend Hanshaw's recordings as any kind of feminist art whatever. It's possible that the whole theme is nothing more than it seems at first glance: Paley was sad and pissed at her ex, in a tradition of sad and pissed women stretching back into the mists of legend. I know this much to a mortal certainty: whatever Paley was trying to say with the film, she could have said it just as easily in 25 minutes as 82

But for all that (and I don't consider the film's constant repetition to be a small flaw, but very nearly one that damns the whole project), Sita Sings the Blues keeps itself up with a tremendously engaging sense of humor and some of the most interesting-looking animation to come out anywhere this year. Not all of the styles are equally appealing, but for the vector graphic Hanshaw music videos alone, this would be among the most visually distinctive movies of the year. Though the film is not without its grinding, aimless side, at least Paley understands this one key to cinema: no movie was ever worth a damn without making a strong visual statement.

7/10

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